Under Pressure

In the Starting Strength novice program, the trainee reaches a point where the weight on the bar for deadlift is too great to keep working this lift every session.  At that point, the trainee begins to alternate deadlift with power clean.  Power clean was and continues to be a hard lift for me, mainly because the bar ends in a front rack position, which I think is totally uncomfortable.  The bar finishes on the front of the shoulders (anterior delts) with elbows far forward and the wrists bent back, a position which requires a fair amount of wrist mobility.  When Diego started teaching me power clean, initially I tried convincing him that I lacked wrist mobility and couldn’t do a proper front rack, that I should really be learning the power snatch.  Not convinced, he had me demonstrate the range of motion in my wrists and then asked me to show him my front rack, at which point he concluded, “There’s nothing wrong with your rack!  You’ll learn power clean!”  Ha!  Failed attempt to convince the coach otherwise.

Having settled that, Diego proceeded to teach me the steps of moving the bar from a dead stop on the floor to the front rack position, at which point I realized that holding the bar in front rack was nothing compared to landing it in the right spot.  This isn’t a problem for a lot of people; for me it is a slow learning process.  I continued to land the bar high, too close to my neck, which not only made me a little dizzy but also increased my concern that I was likely to decapitate myself.  Not one to give credence to complaints, Diego’s response to my nascent phobia was “Don’t worry.  That’ll only happen once.”

The feeling of dizziness that results for some people with the force of the movement and the change in position from low to standing is connected to a resulting change in blood pressure.  For me that feeling is exacerbated in the power clean by landing the bar improperly, causing something that Coach Bob called “blood choke”.  Turns out the body is equipped with sensors called baroreceptors, sensors in our blood vessels that detect and help to maintain blood pressure.  Something about where I tend to land the bar in a front rack position causes these baroreceptors to overachieve.  Some people’s baroreceptors are routinely overly sensitive causing a condition called bradycardia, dizziness and fainting from touching the neck, which some men experience while shaving.

To my mind, this is another example of how amazing our bodies are; they come fully loaded with a system that tells us when we are experiencing too much pressure.  In our daily lives, we spend a lot of our time under tremendous amounts of stress and pressure from work, family, and overly crowded schedules.  Our bodies give us feedback about this type of routine stress too.  Often the feedback in these cases is less obvious than the immediate sensation of dizziness I get from a poorly landed power clean, and consequently we learn to ignore or fail to recognize these signs as being stress related.  Headaches, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating or learning new things, disturbed sleep, difficulty breathing, being short-tempered, compulsive behavior, anxiety, heartburn: all of these are signs of stress that frequently go unrecognized.  Sometimes they are symptoms that we just accept as our normal condition, concluding “I’m just forgetful” instead of “I’m under so much stress that I can’t remember”.

At the moment, my power clean training is on hold for several reasons.  Ideally we would be able to do the same in our daily lives with the things that increase our stress.  In reality we do not always have the luxury of simply removing major stressors from our lives.  Often the activities or people that cause us stress are necessary or essential pieces – jobs that pay the bills, family members or friends who are struggling, people that we are paired with to complete certain tasks.  When our main stressors can’t be eliminated, we need to learn how to handle those situations differently.  Just as I will need to learn and train a better movement pattern for the bar on the front rack, we can train ourselves to navigate stressful situations in ways that allow us to minimize the toll they take on our health.  While we may not be able to control the situations around us, we can certainly take greater control of our reaction to them and minimize the pressure we feel as a result.

Breath and Sky

We all have our Achilles heels, chinks in our armor.  Sometimes those are physical: old nagging injuries, pain from use or disuse, structural weak spots. Sometimes those are mental: too much or too little self-esteem, illusions of perfectionism, inability to ask for help, and so on. One of those physical chinks that Louise and I have in common is occasional, but sometimes debilitating, low back pain.

In the midst of one of my recent back episode, I emailed Louise to ask her how she usually coped. Here’s her response:

“My answer bounces right off most people that ask me how I manage back pain, but here goes:  I breathe and meditate. …that’s the short answer.  I used breath and meditation to get me through two 24 hour labors/births of big babies with no meds.  I used it most recently when my body literally stopped moving. I used it because breathe was all I could do: I could not move anything without excruciating pain.  I use it now at the first whisper of discomfort.  Deep, diaphragmatic breathing both guides me to the source of the pain and simultaneously starts my healing.”

It seems too simplistic to be the answer and yet physiologically amazing things happen in our bodies when we consciously breathe a little deeper. We stimulate the parasympathetic response which begins to counteract some of the negative effects that stress from both injury and life has on our bodies.  The parasympathetic response slows the heart rate and improves digestion, which is how it gets nicknamed the “rest and digest” response.  It allows the body to find homeostasis, to balance its systems.  It encourages us to find and then function from a place of relaxation and calm and from there to begin to repair and heal ourselves.

From my own experience, I know that when my back hurt and I breathed more deeply I was able to relax through the pain and get to the other side of it. I know that when I stress out my friends tell me to “just breathe”. I know that when I get spooled up with anxiety, a deep breath starts to settle me down, keeping me grounded in the present moment rather than careening forward into a feared and totally imagined future.

Kinder sky

I suppose that Louise’s recognition of the need to breathe is somehow connected to the fact that she collects sky pictures. Recently I became one of her “sky buddies”.  (Yeah, Sky, not Skype. It’s way better.)  Whenever we see a particularly beautiful sunrise, a stunning sunset, or big billowy clouds we take a picture and text it. There’s something about staring up at the vastness of the sky, the power in a thundercloud, the elusive beauty in a rainbow, and really seeing it, that allows us to see ourselves too, to view ourselves through a different and clearer lens. Somehow that vast expanse above us makes it ok to be small and broken and to not have all the answers. Somehow looking at the sky puts us in our proper place. And you know what happens automatically and almost miraculously at that very moment?  A deep, full, and healing breath.